It's been more than 20 years now since Robert Russell gave the National Junior College Athletic Association it's most spectacular and dramatic national golf championship finish in history.
Now Kansas City Kansas Community College's only national champion is headed for the NJCAA Golf Hall of Fame.
"He won more tournaments than he lost and I'm not sure any collegiate golfer can say that," says Eric Reisner, Russell's former teammate, caddy and business partner. Indeed, in his two years at KCKCC, Russell won18 of the 24 events in which he competed and was the first golfer in the history of the Jayhawk Conference to win back-to-back conference championships.
"This takes the cake," said Russell. "I'm in two other Hall of Fames but they don't get any bigger than this." An All-American at KCKCC, he was inducted into KCKCC's inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010 and the UMKC Hall of Fame in 2008. As an NJCAA Hall of Famer, he joins such PGA stars as Fuzzy Zoeller, Paul Azinger, Jeff Sluman and Bubba Watson.
As of this past January, Russell is in a new position as assistant professional at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club of LionsGate after the last 2½ years as teaching professional at Shamrock Hills.
Russell's national championship came on a script right out of Hollywood. Boasting a two-shot lead heading into the final round of the 72-hole 1995 NJCAA national tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., Russell found himself on the 18th hole one shot behind Derrick Pursley of Midland, Tex.
"The only thing I can remember about that day was the 18th hole and I can remember it like it was yesterday," says Russell. "I honestly felt physically drained; I just felt helpless. I'd played well all week and I was letting it slip away."
Coming off back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17, he got some good news. "A news guy told me that the guy closest to me (Pursley) was one under so I figured if I could make birdie, I'd have a good chance at a tie," said Russell, who busted a big drive on the par 5 closing hole. To make birdie, however, Russell had a carry of 242 yards over a bunker to a peninsula green and a flag tucked behind the bunker not more than "five paces from the water."
"Standing there, I knew I was one stroke back. Coach (Frank Bigham) was with me and he said, 'Let's lay up and try to make four and see what happens.' I said 'Coach, I'm not going to lay up.' I had to go for it. I hit a 3-iron and when I hit, it was right at the flag and I just prayed it was the right club. Because of the bunker, I couldn't see the ball and I was afraid that maybe it had kicked right into the water."
Instead, it was the best shot of his college career. "When I got there, the ball was on the fringe 15 feet dead under the hole and I started thinking, if I can make eagle, then he (Pursley) would have to make birdie to tie me and eagle to beat me," said Russell. The putt was dead center. "I got a good line on it and a couple feet from the hole I knew it was in. There was a ton of people around the green and they knew it was coming down to the last hole. It was a great feeling."
"It was incredible," Bigham said over and over. "I don't care what tournament it is, if you make eagle to win, that's something. What a putt! What a finish!"
For Russell, the national title capped off what he called a "perfect year." His championship lifted KCKCC to sixth in the Division I national tourney, the Blue Devils' best finish ever "It was the way I wanted to go out because I wanted Coach Bigham to be a part of it," said Russell. "I owe it all to him. He's just been great the two years I've been here and I'm just glad and fortunate that I could provide him with his first national championship and I'm really proud to be a part of his first team in the Top 10."
Following his career at KCKCC, Russell turned down scholarship offers from such elite golf powers as Oklahoma State, Alabama, Texas and Baylor to join Reisner and a couple of other Blue Devils at UMKC, where he won seven tournaments in two years and became UMKC's first NCAA Division I national tournament qualifier.
Professionally, Russell spent eight years playing on the PGA Nationwide Tour and the Hooters Tours, winning a Hooters Tour event in Decatur, Ala., in 1999 and finishing runnerup in four other tournaments. He retired in 2004 without ever losing his Tour card.
The highlight of his pro career also came in1999 when he won one of two qualifying berths for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst by shooting 4-under for 36 holes to finish second a stroke ahead of future PGA stars Matt Gogel and Tom Perniece Jr. at Milburn."I missed the cut but playing in the U.S. Open was one of the biggest thrills of my life," remembers Russell.
"No question, Robert had more talent than anyone I've been around on a golf course," says Reisner, who caddied for Russell in the 1999 U.S. Open. "You can teach anyone how to swing a golf club but you can't teach someone how to get the ball in the hole under pressure and Robert could do that better than anyone I've ever seen. He had that kind of ability, ice water in his veins."
That skill was made possible by great putting. "If he were on the Tour today I think he'd been in the top 10 in putting," says Reisner. "That's what's kept him competitive yet today."
At age 42, Russell was on the top money winner in Midwest PGA Section events in 2015 and this coming weekend is competing with Reisner in a PGA team event in Las Vegas. "I can still swing it a little bit," he says
After owning his own landscaping business for several years, Russell got back into the game, rejoining Reisner as teaching pro at Shamrock Hills where Reisner serves as general manager. They twice teamed up together to help Shamrock Hills win two of its five Kansas City Cups. "In one of his matches, he had nine birdies," says Reisner.
A member of the inaugural KCKCC Athletic Hall of Fame class in 2010, 1995 national golf champion Robert Russell is headed for the NJCAA Hall of Fame. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)